Sometimes I run across an older book that’s usually out-of-print, but has exceptional wisdom locked up in its pages. I found this one at my local Half Priced Books.
The very nature of this book—20 essays about writing by the best SFF authors—makes it hard to review as a whole. I think a better strategy is to look at each chapter in detail.
Chapter 6: Seeing Your Way to Better Stories
This chapter is by Stanley Schmidt, an American author best known for his long-running tenure as editor of Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine. He uses his editorial experience to explain the maxim “show, don’t tell” with practical examples.
He begins by pointing out that authors are verbally oriented by nature. It’s what allows them to focus on the words and produce written work. Readers, on the other hand are a wider cross-section of the population and tend to be more visually oriented. So therefore the job of the author becomes that of a word-painter. One that creates images with the works in a way that the reader can “see.”
The goal of a well-written story is to make the reader forget they are reading, and make them see the story in their head. They must have the illusion of being there. Schmidt says, “the most important key to making the reader see a scene vividly is that the author must see it clearly to be able to convey the illusion to someone else.”
His advice for the best way to do that: Tell it as a play.
All the World’s a Stage
Schmidt lists the ways that telling sneaks in and steals the visuals from a story:
- Describing character rather than showing it through dialog and action.
- Directly disclosing thoughts of non-viewpoint characters.
- Summarizing dialog as indirect discourse instead of quoting it directly.
- Speaking in generalities rather then specifics.
Everything on this list can’t1 be done in a play. An audience can only hear and see what’s on stage. The playwright has to script specific actions and dialog to move the story forward. His advice is to translate your story into a play. This will weed out the telling. It will force you to write the characters in a way that show their emotions and actions. Then translate the play back into a story.
He notes one situation that might trip up an author. It’s the idea that each scene has to emphasis its importance to the story. If the scene is truly key its importance should have been built up in previous scenes. The action in the scene should reinforce its importance. If the author is telling the reader how important it is, they failed at setting it up earlier.
Setting the Stage
While Schmidt talks about “seeing,” he goes on to explain that it’s a shorthand for perceiving and experiencing. Setting the scene with just visuals leaves out the other four senses. He quotes Poul Anderson who says he wants to engage at least three of the reader’s senses when describing a scene. A phrase like “‘old brick wall’ alone tickles at least three sense for a reader who as ever seen and smelled and felt one.
If the setting is not likely to be familiar to the reader, as often happens in science fiction, fantasy, and historical novels, the writer can take less for granted and may have to work harder, and even use more words, to give the scene enough depth to draw the reader in. Even the, though, careful choice of the words is often preferable to using vast numbers of them.
Every reader might get a different picture of the story. What’s important is the reader gets a picture that conveys the truth of the scene.
The Viewpoint Character
Schmidt starts this section by reinforcing the need of the author to maintain a consistent viewpoint throughout a scene. “Head-hopping” might have worked in the past, but doing so risks disorienting the reader. The viewpoint character might change during the story, but must remain the same for each scene.
He also discusses the need for the author to understand the thoughts and feelings of the viewpoint character. His point is that no one see themselves as an idiot or fool. The character must act in a way that’s internally consistent. They must make sense to themselves.
The Rest of the Cast
The author must also look at the story through the eyes of the other characters in the story. This is something that happens out of view of the reader. It’s making sure the characters act in their best interest. If they’re not looking out for themselves, then they become pawns of the author.
In fiction, all too often a writer is determined to have the hero or heroine’s life go a certain way, and so has the other characters do things that will steer it in that direction. The result often bears an uncomfortable resemblance to cardboard puppets—with the strings still showing.
The example Schmidt gives is the war story or western where there is a bad guy who is bad for no reason. This ties back into chapter 5. If the antagonist has their own reasons and motivations they become a much fuller character. And more interesting for the reader. The author who stops and looks at the story through the villain’s eyes will have a stronger story.
The final piece of advice in this chapter is when converting a story into a play, do so without parenthetical instructions on how the lines should be said. It will force you to make the dialog even stronger.
This chapter digs into what is usually said in passing, without explanation: show, don’t tell. Every time I’ve heard that, rarely does an example follow. Schmidt not only gives concrete advice, he gave several examples. Including two scenes2 where he provides a before and after using his advice. Seeing the changes teaches more that a dozen pages of explanation.